How to Survive the Viva

How to Survive the Viva

I wrote this article some time ago. It was a piece I had written within weeks of surviving my Viva! The point is that I did survive it. I passed my Viva with minor corrections (the best you can hope for really!) And if you are at the stage I was at some 3 years ago, having just submitted my Phd thesis, you might find this article of some use.

So you’ve submitted your PhD thesis and you await the date of your Viva – a most terrifying time. When I performed a google search for tips on the Viva, I found very little information on the actual Viva. (With the exception of the Vitae website). So I intend to help as many future Doctorates as I can with some hopefully helpful tips.

Viva Preparation

I ignored my thesis for the first three weeks following submission. I was told by other academics this was a wise move as it gives you an opportunity to clear your head after the hectic episode of submitting the thesis. When I began to look at the thesis again, I was able to look at it in another light and fall in love with the research I had conducted all over again. I was given the date of my Viva 4 weeks after submitting so it enabled me to put together a plan and a target date to work towards.

If possible, try to arrange a mock Viva. Mine (as is I believe customary) was chaired by two academics from my department who knew very little about my research. This was extremely useful as it gave me the opportunity to explain some of my arguments to fellow academics. I found the mock tremendously valuable. They picked up on things I would never have thought of or had totally missed.

Following advice from other academics, I compiled a list of my most feared questions and answer them. As it happened, none of these issues were raised in the Viva, however this exercise was invaluable as it boosted my confidence for the Viva. For me, these points were areas in which I thought my thesis was weakest, so it enabled me to provide a thorough explanation if I was asked to clarify these things in the Viva.

Make sure you have a printed copy with you in the Viva. I found it helpful to mark the chapters with different coloured post-it notes. Also, go through the thesis and write down a bullet point list of the main themes and ensure this is done in order. I kept this list with me in the Viva for security, however, I did not need to refer to it at all.

Write your answers to some potential questions the examiners might ask. These questions will vary between disciplines and indeed examiners.

General questions I can recall being asked were:

  1. In one or two sentences describe your thesis.
  2. How do you think your thesis will contribute to the field?
  3. Was there anything you struggled with in particular?
  4. How did you come up with the topic of research?
  5. Why did you decide upon this title – is it an accurate reflection of the content?
  6. What do you intend to do with the thesis following the Viva?

Other questions were specific to my research.

Make sure you dress appropriately – smart. Because I have been asked what I wore multiple times: I wore a blouse, knee-length skirt and smart shoes with a heel (these were comfortable shoes I had worn on a number of occasions previously).

The Viva itself

I still vividly recall sat outside the room waiting to be called in for my Viva. Unfortunately, it is a terrifying prospect – this is the culmination of years of hard work. I was made to feel welcome when I entered the room – I was offered a drink of water and told to relax. I was also greeted with ‘Welcome to your Viva’ and reminded that this was my day to shine.

Remember your examiners have been through a Viva themselves – they understand how nervous you are and want to help you achieve a status they also have.

If the examiner asks you a question you either misheard or require clarification, it is perfectly acceptable to ask for them to repeat or re-phrase the question. I did this on a couple of occasions and they were happy to do so.

It is also acceptable to ask for a moment to collect your thoughts. It is better to do this than to give a wrong answer.

Be confident, but not cocky. It can be quite intimidating to be face to face with your external examiner, quite often a specialist in your subject. They will want to engage in conversation about your research – it’s their passion too. Enjoy (as much as you can) the opportunity to discuss your thesis in such detail with an expert. But also remember they may have some advice regarding ways to improve your analysis, make sure you take any suggestions on board.

The Verdict

My Viva lasted for approximately 90 minutes – it felt more like 30 minutes, the time flew. I was asked to wait outside for 10 minutes whilst they made their decision. I was in fact sat outside for 40 minutes; if this happens to you, don’t panic! The examiners explained they were trying to find out some information regarding access to materials.

When I re-entered the room and returned to my seat, the examiners told me I had passed. They then explained some of my corrections before telling me I had passed with minors. I cried! I genuinely thought I had failed, or at best passed with majors – my assumption was based upon some of the questions I had been asked and some of the problems they had raised with the thesis. As it happens, these weren’t as catastrophic as I had assumed. 

I would like to stress the importance of preparation for the Viva – someone explained to me it is a ‘rite of passage’ affair and requires adequate preparation. Also, as much as you can, try to stay calm. We have all been in the same situation and it is just another step on your academic path.  

To read any of my History/academic articles, click here.

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